In our last article, we posed the question: How might a manager beckon remote workers back to the office with empathy?
Empathy seems to be the new HR emphasis for 2021, but it must be more than just a square on the “Buzzword Bingo” card to be effective.
People’s B.S. meters pegged when 2020 initiatives on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DE&I) turned out to be little more than overtures to placate people of color in the workplace. Good intentions devolved into grievance sessions in some cases. Skeptical workers viewed the new programs as the latest in a string of management’s attempts to distract from exploitative company culture.
And therein lies the key to success. Culture. To navigate the sea-change that COVID is forcing upon business in 2021 and beyond, companies must embrace empathy as a cultural principle and not a passing fad.
But how do you make people care about their co-workers?
The Origins of Empathy
Childhood development experts assert every human is born with the capacity for empathy. However, children must experience and practice giving and receiving compassion for empathy to blossom. Typically, around three years of age, toddlers begin exhibiting behaviors that reflect the emotional and cognitive processes we call empathy.
Pre-schoolers with developing empathy can recognize emotions in others and name them: happy, sad, angry, afraid. They can regulate their own emotional responses to others’ feelings and choose to act in a manner that might help the other person feel better. Recognizing another’s pain and responding accordingly shows empathy.
Environment and culture play a big part in developing empathy in children. They learn within the context of community, play, and bonding with others. Kids don’t learn empathy in the classroom as much as they learn it in the sandbox. “Empathy is caught, not taught.”
If we learn empathy from our community as children, then company culture is how adults can nurture empathy in the workplace. Right?
The Empathy Trap
Infusing empathy into corporate operations isn’t as simple as it sounds.
For decades, employee handbooks have focused on equal treatment for all under the law. Rightly so, but it’s hard to treat everyone equally on one hand while making exceptions for every individual’s circumstance on the other. If every employee is managed by a custom handbook catering to their special needs, can a company still expect maximum profits?
Efficiency in production and delivery – with as little friction as possible – is what drives profits. Employees who require special accommodations are like square pegs who create friction.
A frictionless employee is the ideal employee for capitalism.
This is the epitome of the empathy trap: employees who have legitimate needs keep mum about it to avoid being seen as “troublesome.” Their personal lives – caregiving challenges, work-life balance, health issues – are often regarded as sources of friction among their peers or superiors. Solutions to their needs, when not offered to all workers, are perceived as examples of unfair treatment. To avoid office politics, those who need empathy the most are often the least likely to raise their hands and ask for help.
When empathy in the workplace is considered an allowance, those who would benefit from it become less-desirable employees. Their friction becomes conspicuous, and their perceived value to the organization suffers. It shows up in performance reviews and forced rankings, and it comes back to bite them.
So how do we reframe empathy as a guiding principle instead of an allowance?
The Neuroscience of Empathy
Neuroscientists have discovered stressful situations – heated confrontations or chronic, dysfunctional relationships – release the hormones cortisol and adrenaline into our bodies. This is the chemistry behind the “fight or flight” impulses of our reptilian brain.
A big rush of cortisol makes a person more irritable, defensive, intolerant, and uncooperative. It also stifles creative thinking, impairs memory, and leads to poor decision-making.
Not exactly optimal conditions for the C-suite executive to be operating under, nor anyone within the corporate hierarchy, for that matter.
Yet, this is how some bosses communicated their return-to-work plans. Their employees’ brains shift into primal survival mode at the thought of going back into the office, and they quit instead.
What does this same “back to work” message look like when delivered with a dose of empathy?
A manager must be willing to invest time in listening to each employee. Invite every person to tell how their work-from-home arrangement has impacted their lives, for better or worse. Ask open-ended questions. Listen intently without an agenda and with the promise of confidentiality.
Managers, engage in idle conversation with your staff. Do it multiple times.
Empathy is a cultural principle now, and not a checkbox to tick. Transparent communication and vulnerability require practice before you feel comfortable doing it. As you practice, you’re deepening empathy and becoming emotionally invested in one another; just like we learned to make friends in our pre-school days.
Here’s the magic of emotional investment. It makes us less critical and more tolerant. When we listen to each other share stories, our brains pump the hormone oxytocin into our systems. In contrast to cortisol, oxytocin makes us “feel” empathy. People with high levels of oxytocin are more trusting and generous. We are at our most “human” when under the influence of oxytocin.
After trust has been established and everyone is in a generous mood, it’s time to broach the subject of returning to the workplace.
“How would it impact your life to come back to the office?”
“What obstacles could we collaborate together to overcome?”
“Is there a happy medium that meets company objectives without creating too much stress on your personal responsibilities at home?”
Have more conversations. Be creative. Find solutions. Take time to hear their stories. Re-recruit your star talent by getting reacquainted with them, just as you would take time getting to know a new hire.
When you see their pain points, respond in a way that will help soothe their hurts. Sometimes, it’s just a word of affirmation or encouragement. Sometimes, you may have to advocate for your direct report to higher ups.
Empower Frontline Managers
If this new empathy initiative is really going to survive, the entire organization must develop leadership skills in its frontline managers and empower them to interpret policy for individual cases.
Most managers at all levels are scared of interpretation.
When we don’t know how to interpret, or we’re not sure if our interpretation is correct, we default to inaction and blame it on the legal department or compliance constraints.
In this transition time of calling employees back to the workplace, the best way to retain top talent is to make them feel exceptionally valued. That is communicated through making exceptions for them.
“You can only come in on Wednesdays and Thursdays, but you can work remotely the other three days? Done!”
“You’d rather work four tens and have a three-day weekend? Deal.”
HR officers must learn to trust the judgment of their frontline managers in matters of employee retention and empathy. The manager has just invested hours of listening and collaborating with a star employee to devise a plan that works for the company and the individual.
Blocking a compromise agreement that complies with the spirit of company policy, if not the letter of the law, deflates the whole HR initiative of showing empathy.
Instead, HR must partner with its frontline managers to protect the company’s interests regarding employment law while reaching decisions that move the business forward through hiring, retaining, and developing top talent.
This shift to empathy will be neither clear-cut nor perfect in the beginning. However, empowering managers and peers to practice empathy by giving latitude in decision-making where the boots meet the ground will yield better results.
Is your organization due for a candid conversation about the future of work for its employees? A neutral party can diffuse some of the cortisol-producing stress that leads to poor decisions. Contact inclineHR to inquire about meeting facilitation.
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